Reuse, Recycle, Renew: The resurrection of the handmade in Brian Jungen’s Artistry

By Shauna Lewis

For most people, running shoes are meant to be worn on the feet and sofas are comfortable seating devices, but for artist Brian Jungen mass-produced objects like these possess the potential to be transformed into something entirely different.

ArtOn exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery until the end of April, Jungen’s decade of works from the mid-nineties to present reflect western society’s insatiable hunger toward consumerism. With re-creation a driving force in his works, the 35-year old artist of Swiss and Dunne-za First Nations ancestry has done everything from ripping apart countless pairs of overpriced brand-name runners to transforming plastic step stools and leather couches into art that is reflective of the political, social, cultural and economic tone in contemporary western society.

JungenGrowing up poor in a rural town near Fort Saint John, Jungen recalls the important role recycling played in his household. By observing his mother’s material sensibilities, reusing and recycling goods was more about survival than the art it would become.

In his teen years, Jungen’s interest in visual arts materialized through drawing and painting. Bored with painting, the young artist enrolled in Vancouver’s esteemed Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. In school Jungen cultivated his passion for executing instillations using pre-made objects. While the themes of Jungen’s works are heavily influenced by his family’s thriftiness, it also blatantly draws attention to mass consumerism and corporate influence on modern western society.

The notion of space is also referenced in the Vancouver-based artist’s work, as Jungen’s passion to explore art in context has manifested in works that reference the cultural anthropology of art, the issue of craft versus art and the line between the museum and the corporate world.

Daina Augiatis, chief curator and associate director of the Vancouver Art Gallery commented on the issue of art in context in a written statement referring to Jungen’s work as being effective at “eliciting questions about museum display, cultural representation and the global economy.”

Influences and inspirations
Jungen’s interest in topics concerning consumer culture and the hype centered on brand names and department stores led to the birth of his series of works entitled ‘Prototypes for a New Understanding.’ In 1998, with the help of a Canada Council grant, Jungen purchased multiple pairs of Nike Air Jordan running shoes and proceeded to take apart the shoe’s stitching and reorganized the materials to form new designs. Using the pre-existing holes created during the manufacturing process, Jungen, with the help of a friend, re-stitched the shoes together to form a modern rendition of the ceremonial masks from First Nations of BC’S Northwest Coast.

“I was fascinated how much the Air Jordan brand resembled motifs, designs and color schemes of different coastal nations, and in return how those objects and artifacts have come to be located in so many museums around the world and have come to represent, not only specific individual nations, but B.C. in general,” Jungen said.

Jungen asserts that his intent in creating the series was not to reproduce the exact styles and meanings of traditional Northwest Coast masks associated with existing lineages and sacred ceremonial purposes, but rather to explore the meaning of these objects in the context of modernity and, more specifically, North American urbanization and consumerism. The deconstruction of the mass produced and the reconstruction or consequent resurrection of the hand-made is noted in every re-stitched thread and fiber of his works.

“I really was interested in how meanings have become defused and have become a part of the aesthetic of popular culture,” Jungen said in reference to the series.

At first glance, Jungen’s monumental piece entitled “Furniture Sculpture,” (2006) resembles a typical Planes First Nation dwelling unit. But after a closer look, viewers are in the midst of a labor intensive creation that conveys artistic ingenuity through both medium and meaning. Constructed entirely from 11 black leather sofas from the Brick furniture company, Jungen’s 25-foot black leather tipi is symbolic of the marriage between ready-made mass produced materials and the memories Jungen has of his childhood when his family would camp and live in tipis. Alluding to the mixture of familial ties, cultural relevance and a social rank commonly associated with economic wealth and consumerism, Jungen describes the work as “collapsing cattle sofas that represented this kind of working class luxury item.”

Like the running shoes, Jungen disassembled the leather panels and wood frames of the manufactured sofa and reassembled the materials to form a traditional First Nations structure. Irony in the piece lays within the deconstruction of an object representing modern luxury and social status and the reinstatement of those organic materials to reconstruction a cultural-specific object symbolic of shelter and family.

Homage to fellow artist, Ken Lum, the tipi refers to the notion of publicly closed off spaces for the use of cohabitation. Also important in the installation is color. Jungen said he used black leather sofas because it represents elements of rank and luxury among his family and the friends he grew up with in his northern home.

“In communities there’s something about a black leather sofa that, at least in my own background, is a status symbol,” said Jungen.

Equally impressive works are Jungen’s series of three monumental whale skeletons, each solely crafted of lawn chairs purchased from Canadian tire. ‘Shape shifter,’ ‘Cetology’ and ‘Vienna’ are gigantic suspended instillations that hover over the viewers who walk beneath them in the gallery setting.

Ingeniously engineered to look like the skeletons of enormous ocean mammals, a closer look proves that these whales are entirely made of plastic and linked together like some sort of puzzle or Lego creation. According to research conducted by the VAG, the choice to use plastic as a medium in the construction of these works is also of great meaning and irony as one of the organic compounds found in plastics are derived from the fossilized bones of whales.

Inspired by various contemporary modern artists, Jungen said he was drawn to the aesthetics of minimalist art but incorporates his own ‘identity politics’ in many of his works. While Jungen asserts his art is more of a formal investigation concerning economy than an issue alluding to race and culture, he has spent sometime thinking about his cultural identity and the role it plays in his art and life.

“I wasn’t really interested in this idea of affirmative action or ideas around having to have a certain kind of quantity of identity in order to speak about something,” Jungen said.

While he is First Nations and an artist, Jungen does not self-identify as a Native artist. “My work is secular, it has no relation to tradition or lineage therefore it has been removed automatically from Native art.”

Although some people may disagree with Jungen’s stark binary between Native art and modernism, the artist asserts a sort of flexibility is achieved when adhering to a more secular style of artistry.

“I think modernism is more fluid than this rigid structure of authenticity in First Nations art and culture,” he said.

Minimalist, modernists, Native artist, whichever way one chooses to describe the world-renowned Brian Jungen; one thing holds true, his art speaks volumes of the society in which it was born, a trait unarguably shared by all movements and styles in the history of art.